What’s the Best Way to Help People Lose Weight?

If weight-loss programs advertised on television were to be believed, then it is obvious that the best way to get people to lose weight and keep it off is to eat commercially available, calorie-controlled packaged meals and snacks. In just [insert number of days] you, the consumer, will drop at least 10 to 20 pounds, lose your hunger completely, and never have another food craving, according to the promises in the ads. Two runners-up would include an FDA-approved weight-loss drug that takes away appetite and replaces the pleasure you get from eating with something not defined, and/or an exercise device that melts off pounds and replaces them with a “ripped” body that looks good in a minuscule bikini or swim trunks.

Despite the allure of such advertisements, and the wish to look like the models proclaiming the efficacy of such weight-loss interventions, extensive research indicates that they are not the best way to lose weight and keep it off. No surprise.

A few days ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a paper that summarized several years of analyzing current interventions on weight loss and maintaining weight loss. The report did not include results from surgical interventions that reduce the size of the stomach, such as putting a balloon in the stomach or removing food from the stomach through a tube that empties into a receptacle. The criterion for review of the weight-loss interventions was whether or not they could be “provided in or referred from a primary care setting.”

The report stressed the importance of identifying the most effective means of bringing about weight loss because of the alarming prevalence of obesity in the states. The commonly accepted definition of obesity is a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or higher. (This is weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared; there are websites that help with this calculation for the arithmetic-challenged reader.) More than 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men in the United States today meet the criterion for obesity.

Intensive, multifaceted weight-loss interventions were found to be the most successful based on the authors’ review of published studies. Such interventions lasted one to two years, with monthly or more frequent meetings. Although food plans that would support weight loss were part of the intervention, the report did not single out any particular type of diet, other than inferring it would have to be a food plan that could be followed for many months. People were encouraged to monitor their weight and exercise levels, to use food scales to weigh their food, and behavioral support was consistently offered. The settings ranged from face-to-face meetings with individuals or a group to remote interactions via Skype or other computer-assisted interactions.

Even though the review looked at programs that could be carried out in a primary care setting, as opposed to surgical interventions, primary care physicians were rarely involved in the programs. A “village” of behavioral therapists, dieticians, exercise physiologists, and life coaches offered a variety of services designed to enhance not only the weight loss but also its subsequent maintenance.

The study rejected the use of weight-loss drugs because the authors wanted to find interventions that caused the least harm. Such drugs come with a long list of side effects: anxiety, gastrointestinal symptoms, headache, elevated heart rate, and mood disorders, to name a few. The side effects from behavioral interventions might be aching muscles from a new exercise or a longing for highly caloric foods. The authors did note that when pharmacological interventions were combined with behavioral ones, the results were better than with either intervention alone. But there was a high rate of attrition, i.e. withdrawal from the studies among those taking weight-loss drugs, perhaps due to the side effects.

The takeaway message from this comprehensive report is that the thousands of people in need of weight loss should locate a primary care physician who will then direct them to an intensive and comprehensive behavioral weight-loss program meeting at least once a month for 18 months or longer. The program should help them buy and prepare the foods they should be eating, make sure that they have the time and money to participate in frequent exercise, identify or solve problems causing emotional overeating, and make sure that weight-loss successes are supported by family and friends and not sabotaged. The report did not mention cost; the studies the authors reviewed were free to the participants.

“When pigs fly!” might be the somewhat cynical response to this paper. Yes, of course, all these interventions will presumably work, except perhaps for those patients whose weight gain was a side effect of their medications. It is very hard to lose weight when drugs such as antidepressants and mood stabilizers cause hunger that does not go away.

But how many primary care practices have the money and time to formulate and carry out the intensive programs recommended? How many hospital-based weight-loss clinics have exercise physiologists, life coaches, therapists, and dieticians to pay personal attention to the participants? Where does one go to find such programs?

And yet, what are the alternatives? The list of medical problems associated with obesity, ranging from orthopedic disabilities to cancer, is not getting smaller. Might technology be the answer? Smartphones allow us to monitor many aspects of our daily lives, from how we sleep to whether we feel stressed. Might robots or some other form of artificial intelligence prevent us from eating portions that are too large or moving too little (some do already), or ask us what is really wrong when we open the freezer to look for the ice cream? Can a robot remind us to do our exercise routine, or meditate, or stop working and give ourselves some private time…or turn off the computer or television and go to sleep? And would we be less likely to deny that we have just eaten a bag of cookies to a robot?

Human interventions have not worked all that well; perhaps it is time to turn to the other.

References

“Behavioral Weight Loss Interventions to Prevent Obesity-Related Morbidity and Mortality in Adults,” US Preventive Services Task Force Recommendation Statement US Preventive Services Task Force JAMA, 2018; 320(11): 1163-117.

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